PA announcement: Attention all personnel. The exploits of the cast and crew of the 4077th as noted below are shared to remember Larry Gelbart (February 25, 1928 – September 11, 2009).
I revisit with M*A*S*H now and again and am always reminded that the show is testament to the medium of television’s incredible power to move. There’s nothing new to be shared about this critically acclaimed situation comedy as M*A*S*H has been written about and discussed by powers and talents far greater than me or mine for over four decades. But as a fan of television I can attest to M*A*S*H’s sheer guts often reflected in the moral fiber of its characters thanks to the talents involved in the making of the show, all now considered television royalty.
M*A*S*H debuted on September 17, 1972 in the midst of a country whose hearts, minds and attitudes were divided by war. Although the show’s setting is the Korean War there was no mistaking the uniquely political comedy’s anti-establishment, anti-war messaging was rife with Vietnam. At the time television had gone through its revolution thanks to shows like All in the Family, which regularly dealt with controversy by way of laughter. So the stage was set when Larry Gelbart, who developed M*A*S*H for television, was encouraged to go out and watch Robert Altman’s film, M*A*S*H (1970) with the idea of writing a tv version. I can’t imagine what a daunting task it must have been to even consider taking a war film’s premise, a film that was still in theaters and a hit mind you, and start thinking about developing that premise into a half-hour situation comedy.
Larry Gelbart and all those others who wrote for M*A*S*H through the years met the challenge of writing a comedy about war – and then some. Loosely based on real-life M*A*S*H unit 8055 as depicted in “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” by H. Richard Hornberger, which begat Altman’s movie, the writers and actors on M*A*S*H (the show) were able to achieve the impossible each week. That is, seamlessly serve up a blend of broad comedy and heart wrenching drama – neither of which is ever forced or contrived – week after week. A typical episode of M*A*S*H could feature hijinks from the surgical staff and clever one-liners and transition into dealing with a serious moral or ethic issue that would naturally arise in a war-torn area. The previously mentioned “guts” of those involved with M*A*S*H manifested itself in the show by the choice made to play
it straight in a situation comedy when the situation called for it. A major reason why the series remained so popular during its 11 season run is its truth. The same reason, incidentally, why it is still poignant, yet hilarious today.
On the human level the characters in M*A*S*H cover the spectrum from absurd to heroic. And that’s just Hawkeye (Alan Alda). No matter what is depicted or how it is portrayed one thing remains constant throughout the episodes, one message that simmers, stews or is out-n-out stated – there is no insult greater than war itself.
“M*A*S*H was about people under stress, people standing around in other people’s blood and guts, hating being there. We had a seriousness of purpose but we enjoyed the craziness.” – Alan Alda
I couldn’t possibly choose a handful of M*A*S*H episodes to deem as favorites. I’ve watched every single episode through the years several times, any one of which broke the mold. I’ll choose two exceptional episodes of the dramedy from Season 5 just because they’re fresh in my mind. The first, “The Nurses” centers on the character of Major Margaret Houlihan played by Loretta Swit.
In “The Nurses” the hard-nosed, by-the-book Major Houlihan is treated with distrust and disdain by her nursing staff who have bonded with each other. The Major confines one of the nurses to her tent for breaking some kind of rule on the same day the nurse’s husband pays a surprise visit to the 4077th. The other nurses then make arrangements to set up a rendezvous for the nurse and her husband behind Margaret’s back. Of course, Major Houlihan finds out about the deception and confronts the group in anger, ready to impose the harshest punishment. However, this time the nurses speak out because they’ve nothing to lose and tell Major Houlihan they can’t trust her and that she never gives them a break despite how hard they work. The Major’s
response as she holds back tears is heart wrenching to watch and leaves the nurses speechless – the woman they’ve known as heartless has feelings that run deep…
Margaret: Did you ever once show me any kind of friendship? Ask my help with a personal problem? Include me in one of your little bull sessions? Can you imagine what it feels like to walk by this tent and hear you laughing and know… that I’m not welcome? Did you ever once ever offer me a lousy cup of coffee?
Nurse: [Stunned at this show of emotion] We didn’t think you’d accept.
Margaret: Well, you were wrong.
Loretta Swit brings it home emotionally in that scene, an important moment for a character that came over from the movie as “Hotlips” Houlihan, the butt of jokes and developed – thanks to the exceptional writing and acting – into a woman of substance that demanded respect. Margaret Houlihan’s character arc in the span of the series may be my favorite. But she is just one example of the depth with which the characters on M*A*S*H were written.
In the other episode I mentioned, “Hawk’s Nightmare” we see Hawkeye just off an 18-hour stint in the O.R. losing his grip
on dealing with the war. Hawkeye is usually the strongest character, the one who uses humor as a defense mechanism. He’s actually the voice of the show in many ways and while all is absurd and crazy around him, this irreverent character performs miracles. Suddenly in this episode, Hawkeye starts sleep walk and is having terrible nightmares about his boyhood friends dying. It turns out the war is bleeding over into his subconscious and his fond memories of childhood, a time and place far outside his current daily existence within the confines of the 4077th. It’s a wake up call for everyone – when the war gets to Hawkeye we know for sure its effects reach far and wide and no one is unscathed.
The final episode of M*A*S*H aired on February 28, 1983 and was one of the most watched television programs of all time with an estimated 77% of those watching television that night tuned in. Those are amazing numbers for an average show. But when you consider that M*A*S*H was a comedy that dealt with real-life situations, matters of life and death, that the jokes were often told while the characters’ hands were in the bowels of another human being then that statistic becomes extraordinary.
In this day of political correctness and art be damned – or so it often seems – shows like M*A*S*H that dare to be brave would not even be considered for airing on network television. Luckily, the show is available in syndication. If you’ve never seen it you’ve missed out on the best that Television can offer.
The full list of M*A*S*H characters and the actors who played them can be found here.